It’s rare that any of us is happy to hear something on the web. More likely, some advertisement autoplays through our speakers, right as our boss walks by in the office.
SoundCloud is a platform for 15 million users who share audio—everything from music, to rants to news reports. They’re working hard to “unmute the web,” and are the first to point out that “we have this little computer in our pockets, and we all recognize that it has a camera, but it also has an amazing microphone.”
So far, the service has been a sort of YouTube for audio buffs. But with their upcoming redesign (which just entered beta yesterday), the Next SoundCloud is making the smallest tweaks to their product that could make the biggest of differences: They’re turning SoundCloud into a more social, instantly sharable audio feed. It’s a spoken Twitter, or Instagram with stories rather than pictures.
“We’re no longer just a pro-oriented site,” says co-founder and CTO Eric Wahlforss, alluding to a gradual shift they’ve seen from semi-pro users to more everyday people over the last three years. “The most common use case we have is any sort of recording straight to our mobile apps—creators, music, or non-music … the megatrend that we see is definitely in terms of mobile and tablet.”
In turn, SoundCloud has redesigned the desktop experience to feel more like a mobile (and social) one. Truthfully, not a lot has changed, but the slightest of design cues make the platform feel entirely invigorated. In the old feed, you could follow friends, which would generate a Twitter-like list of shared clips. But it never really felt like Twitter. It felt like what it was a somewhat esoteric sound app.
Now, the feed has been beefed up with large avatars to accompany the waveforms. They literally put a friendly face on an engineering interface. Then, they added a pane to their feed page, so that when you scroll down, you scroll just through your feed, and everything on the right side of the page (like followers and other notifications) stays anchored. This “more app-like” feel encourages users to dig deep into their feed, and one button autosharing (you could call it a retweet), means that audio can spread with the quick, viral nature we see in other media.
But I was curious, if I found SoundCloud so much more inviting with a focus on my friends rather than the audio itself, was it time for the company to ditch the large, techie waveforms altogether? After all, I can’t translate a waveform into meaningful information with my eyes alone, and it seems like the sort of design element that could drive off the most casual users. The SoundCloud team most definitely disagrees.
“What we found is that the waveform is a great way to make sounds social, tangible, visceral in a way that hasn’t been on the web in the past,” Wahlforss says. “It’s a kind of playful element on the UI that makes it intuitive. I think a lot of people get that right away.”
Now, SoundCloud isn’t a perfect parallel to Instagram or Twitter. Namely, their core app serves as an API for over 300 separately branded mobile apps. This puts their technology somewhere between YouTube and the current wave of more granular social network experiences, expanding a user base, sure, but splitting it into various pieces in the process. (By contrast, Instagram was usable only on an iPhone for most of its life.)
How this more open approach reconciles with the addictiveness of media feeds is yet unclear. But if their strategy pans out, who knows, we all just might use our phones for talking again.